Daniel Heller, PhD Back To 2017 Winners

2017 Winners


Steady efforts to develop new technologies to investigate, diagnose, and treat cancer will lead to important breakthroughs in cancer care. In recent years, scientists and engineers learned to manipulate matter on the nano-scale, facilitating the development of nanotechnologies that are similar in size to the molecular machines that run the body. My laboratory is working to apply these new abilities to make new nano-tools to accelerate cancer research, nanosensors to facilitate earlier cancer diagnosis, and targeted nanomedicines to reduce the side effects and improve the effectiveness of cancer therapies.

Dr. Daniel Heller is a native New Yorker raised in Brooklyn and Westchester County. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Rice University in 2000 and then began a two-year career as a middle school science teacher. He started his research career in the laboratories of Randall Lee and Michael Rea at the University of Houston and Robert Curl at Rice University, where he found his interest in nanotechnology. Dr. Heller earned his PhD in chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2010. His graduate research, in the laboratory of Michael Strano, involved the study of the optical properties of carbon nanotubes.  He then completed a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship in the laboratory of Robert Langer at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, where he investigated engineering approaches to cancer drug delivery.

Dr. Heller is now an Assistant Member in the Molecular Pharmacology Program and the Center for Molecular Imaging and Nanotechnology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology at Weill Cornell Medical College. His work focuses on the development of nanoscale technologies for the treatment, diagnosis, and research of cancer. His recent findings include a drug delivery technology to target personalized medicines to tumors and an implantable sensor to detect cancer biomarkers using wearable technology. He is a 2012 recipient of the National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award.

Targeting Kinase Inhibitors to RAS-Driven Tumors

Therapy based on personalized medicine—the genomic context of a patient’s disease—has become a leading strategy to treat cancer. Kinase inhibitors, which target proteins that are switched on by key genetic mutations, constitute a major component of this strategy. Although they are more advanced than older chemotherapeutic drugs, kinase inhibitors can cause severe side effects that prevent administration of effective doses. Tumors caused by RAS mutations, for instance, which occur in 30% of solid tumors, including the vast majority of pancreatic tumors, can be targeted by kinase inhibitors, but their effectiveness is curtailed by severe toxicities.

“The PSSCRA Prize will allow my laboratory to develop a technology to potentially improve many classes of cancer medicines. I believe that new technologies could significantly change the properties of many personalized medicines to improve their anti-cancer abilities and decrease toxic side effects. The support of this type of work signifies the resourcefulness of the PSSCRA to look broadly for diverse approaches to fighting cancer.”

We developed a novel technology platform that allows the synthesis of nanoparticles loaded with diverse drug classes that can be predicted using computational chemistry. This approach allows the development of personalized nanomedicines that are targeted to the many mutations in patient tumors. The
nanoparticles also target CAV1, which is present in blood vessels associated with tumors, allowing them to steer drugs specifically to tumors and away from healthy cells. In collaboration with experts at MSKCC, we are investigating this technology and employing it to devise a therapeutic solution to effectively treat RAS-driven cancers. We believe that this is a game-changing technology because of the ability to design drug carrier vehicles which can target a diverse set of personalized drugs and drug combinations to tumors while avoiding tissues that result in side effects. The completion of these studies will provide crucial information needed to begin assessment in humans via clinical trials.

“Innovation involves leaving your comfort zone to find the places where your abilities and experiences can intersect with different fields and new approaches. Making a bigger impact can often mean working with more diverse people and trying new things, which leads to one feeling like an expert less but learning much more.”